Sinking-Fund Cases/Opinion of the Court

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United States Supreme Court

99 U.S. 700

Sinking-Fund Cases

The single question presented by the case of the Union Pacific Railroad Company is as to the constitutionality of that part of the act of May 7, 1878, which establishes in the treasury of the United States a sinking-fund. The validity of the rest of the act is not necessarily involved.

It is our duty, when required in the regular course of judicial proceedings, to declare an act of Congress void if not within the legislative power of the United States; but this declaration should never be made except in a clear case. Every possible presumption is in favor of the validity of a statute, and this continues until the contrary is shown beyond a rational doubt. One branch of the government cannot encroach on the domain of another without danger. The safety of our institutions depends in no small degree on a strict observance of this salutary rule.

The United States cannot any more than a State interfere with private rights, except for legitimate governmental purposes. They are not included within the constitutional prohibition which prevents States from passing laws impairing the obligation of contracts, but equally with the States they are prohibited from depriving persons or corporations of property without due process of law. They cannot legislate back to themselves, without making compensation, the lands they have given this corporation to aid in the construction of its railroad. Neither can they by legislation compel the corporation to discharge its obligations in respect to the subsidy bonds otherwise than according to the terms of the contract already made in that connection. The United States are as much bound by their contracts as are individuals. If they repudiate their obligations, it is as much repudiation, with all the wrong and reproach that term implies, as it would be if the repudiator had been a State or a municipality or a citizen. No change can be made in the title created by the grant of the lands, or in the contract for the subsidy bonds, without the consent of the corporation. All this is indisputable.

The contract of the company in respect to the subsidy bonds is to pay both principal and interest when the principal matures, unless the debt is sooner discharged by the application of one-half the compensation for transportation and other services rendered for the government, and the five per cent of net earnings as specified in the charter. This was decided in Union Pacific Railroad Co. v. United States, 91 U.S. 72. The precise point to be determined now is, whether a statute which requires the company in the management of its affairs to set aside a portion of its current income as a sinking-fund to meet this and other mortgage debts when they mature, deprives the company of its property without due process of law, or in any other way improperly interferes with vested rights.

This corporation is a creature of the United States. It is a private corporation created for public purposes, and its property is to a large extent devoted to public uses. It is, therefore, subject to legislative control so far as its business affects the public interests. Chicago, Burlington, & Quincy Railroad Co. v. Iowa, 94 U.S. 155.

It is unnecessary to decide what power Congress would have had over the charter if the right of amendment had not been reserved; for, as we think, that reservation has been made. In the act of 1862, sect. 18, it was accompanied by an explanatory statement showing that this had been done 'the better to accomplish the object of this act, namely, to promote the public interest and welfare by the construction of said railroad and telegraph line, and keeping the same in working order, and to secure to the government at all times (but especially in time of war) the use and benefits of the same for postal, military, and other purposes' and by an injunction that it should be used with 'due regard for the rights of said companies.' In the act of 1864, however, there is nothing except the simple words (sect. 22) 'that Congress may at any time alter, amend, and repeal this act.' Taking both acts together, and giving the explanatory statement in that of 1862 all the effect it can be entitled to, we are of the opinion that Congress not only retains, but has given special notice of its intention to retain, full and complete power to make such alterations and amendments of the charter as come within the just scope of legislative power. That this power has a limit, no one can doubt. All agree that it cannot be used to take away property already acquired under the operation of the charter, or to deprive the corporation of the fruits actually reduced to possession of contracts lawfully made; but, as was said by this court, through Mr. Justice Clifford, in Miller v. The State (15 Wall. 498), 'it may safely be affirmed that the reserved power may be exercised, and to almost any extent, to carry into effect the original purposes of the grant, or to secure the due administration of its affairs, so as to protect the rights of stockholders and of creditors, and for the proper disposition of its assets;' and again, in Holyoke Company v. Lyman (id. 519), 'to protect the rights of the public and of the corporators, or to promote the due administration of the affairs of the corporation.' Mr. Justice Field, also speaking for the court, was even more explicit when, in Tomlinson v. Jessup (id. 459), he said, 'the reservation affects the entire relation between the State and the corporation, and places under legislative control all right, privileges, and immunities derived by its charter directly from the State;' and again, as late as Railroad Company v. Maine (96 U.S. 510), 'by the reservation . . . the State retained the power to alter it [the charter] in all particulars constituting the grant to the new company, formed under it, of corporate rights, privileges, and immunities.' Mr. Justice Swayne, in Shields v. Ohio (95 U.S. 324), says, by way of limitation, 'The alterations must be reasonable; they must be made in good faith, and be consistent with the object and scope of the act of incorporation. Sheer oppression and wrong cannot be inflicted under the guise of amendment or alteration.' The rules as here laid down are fully sustained by authority. Further citations are unnecessary.

Giving full effect to the principles which have thus been authoritatively stated, we think it safe to say, that whatever rules Congress might have prescribed in the original charter for the government of the corporation in the administration of its affairs, it retained the power to establish by amendment. In so doing it cannot undo what has already been done, and it cannot unmake contracts that have already been made, but it may provide for what shall be done in the future, and may direct what preparation shall be made for the due performance of contracts already entered into. It might originally have prohibited the borrowing of money on mortgage, or it might have said that no bonded debt should be created without ample provision by sinking-fund to meet it at maturity. Not having done so at first, it cannot now by direct legislation vacate mortgages already made under the powers originally granted, nor release debts already contracted. A prohibition now agai st contracting debts will not avoid debts already incurred. An amendment making it unlawful to issue bonds payable at a distant day, without at the same time establishing a fund for their ultimate redemption, will not invalidate a bond already out. All such legislation will be confined in its operation to the future.

Legislative control of the administration of the affairs of a corporation may, however, very properly include regulations by which suitable provision will be secured in advance for the payment of existing debts when they fall due. If a State under its reserved power of charter amendment were to provide that no dividends should be paid to stockholders from current earnings until some reasonable amount had been set apart to meet maturing obligations, we think it would not be seriously contended that such legislation was unconstitutional, either because it impaired the obligations of the charter contract or deprived the corporation of its property without due process of law. Take the case of an insurance company dividing its unearned premiums among its stockholders without laying by any thing to meet losses, would any one doubt the power of the State under its reserved right of amendment to prohibit such dividends until a suitable fund had been established to meet losses from outstanding risks? Clearly not, we think, and for the obvious reason that while stockholders are entitled to receive all dividends that may legitimately be declared and paid out of the current net income, their claims on the property of the corporation are always subordinate to those of creditors. The property of a corporation constitutes the fund from which its debts are to be paid, and if the officers improperly attempt to divert this fund from its legitimate uses, justice requires that they should in some way be restrained. A court of equity would do this, if called upon in an appropriate manner; and it needs no argument to show that a legislative regulation which requires no more of the corporation than a court would compel it to do without legislation is not unreasonable.

Such a regulation, instead of being destructive in its character, would be eminently conservative. Railroads are a peculiar species of property, and railroad corporations are in some respects peculiar corporations. A large amount of money is required for construction and equipment, and this to a great extent is represented by a funded debt, which, as well as the capital stock, is sought after for investment, and is distributed widely among large numbers of persons. Almost as a matter of necessity it is difficult to secure any concert of action among the different classes of creditors and stockholders, and consequently all are compelled to trust in a great degree to the management of the corporation by those who are elected as officers, without much, if any, opportunity for personal supervision. The interest of the stockholders, who, as a rule, alone have the power to select the managers, is not unfrequently antagonistic to those of the debt-holders, and it therefore is especially proper that the government, whose creature the corporation is, should exercise its general powers of supervision and do all it reasonably may to protect investments in the bonds and stock from loss through improvident management.

No better case can be found for illustration than is presented by the history of this corporation. Without undertaking in any manner to cast censure upon those by whose matchless energy this great road was built and, as if by magic, put into operation, it is a fact which cannot be denied, that, when the road was in a condition to be run, its bonds and stocks represented vastly more than the actual cost of the labor and material which went into its construction. Great undertakings like this, whose future is at the time uncertain, requiring as they do large amounts of money to carry them on, seem to make it necessary that extraordinary inducements should be held out to capitalists to enter upon them, since a failure is almost sure to involve those who make the venture in financial ruin. It is not, however, the past with which we are now to deal, but rather the present and the future. We are not sitting in judgment upon the history of this corporation, but upon its present condition. We now know that when the road was completed its funded debt alone was as follows: First mortgage, $27,232,000, subsidy bonds, $27,236,512, all maturing thirty years after date, and that the average time of its maturity is during the year 1897. In addition to this are now the sinking-fund bonds, the land-grant bonds, and the Omaha-bridge bonds, amounting to at least $20,000,000 more. The interest on the first mortgage and all other classes of bonds, except the subsidy bonds, will undoubtedly be met as it falls due; but on the subsidy bonds, as has already been seen, no interest is payable, except out of the half of the earnings for government service and the five per cent of net earnings, until the maturity of the principal. Thus far, as we have had occasion to observe in the various suits which have come before us during the past few years, involving an inquiry into these matters, the payments from these sources have fallen very far short of keeping down the accruing interest, and according to present appearances it is not probably too much to say that when the debt is due there will be as much owing the United States for interest paid as for principal. There will then become due from this company, in less than twenty years from this date, in the neighborhood of $80,000,000, secured by the first and subsidy mortgages. In addition to this are the capital stock, representing $36,000,000 more, and the funded debt inferior in its lien to that of the subsidy bonds. All these different classes of securities have become favorites in the market for investments, and they are widely scattered at home and abroad. They have taken to a certain extent the place of the public funds as investments. With the exception of the land-grant, which is first devoted to the payment of the land-grant bonds, but little if any thing except the earnings of the company can be depended on to meet these obligations when they mature. The company has been in the receipt of large earnings since the completion of its road, and, after paying the interest on its own bonds at maturity, has been dividing the remainder, or a very considerable portion of it, from time to time among its stockholders, without laying by any thing to meet the enormous debt which, considering the amount, is so soon to become due. It is easy to see that in this way the stockholders of the present time are receiving in the shape of dividends that which those of the future may be compelled to lose. It is hardly to be presumed that this great weight of pecuniary obligation can be removed without interfering with dividends hereafter, unless at once some preparation is made by sinking-fund or otherwise to prevent it. Under these circumstances, the stockholders of to-day have no property right to dividends which shall absorb all the net earnings after paying debts already due. The current earnings belong to the corporation, and the stockholders, as such, have no right to them as against the just demands of creditors.

The United States occupy towards this corporation a two-fold relation,-that of sovereign and that of creditor. United States v. Union Pacific Railroad Co., 98 U.S. 569. Their rights as sovereign are not crippled because they are creditors, and their privileges as creditors are not enlarged by the charter because of their sovereignty. They cannot, as creditors, demand payment of what is due them before the time limited by the contract. Neither can they, as sovereign or creditors, require the company to pay the other debts it owes before they mature. But out of regard to the rights of the subsequent lienholders and stockholders, it is not only their right, but their duty, as sovereign to see to it that the current stockholders do not, in the administration of the affairs of the corporation, a propriate to their own use that which in equity belongs to others. A legislative regulation which does no more than require them to submit to their just contribution towards the payment of a bonded debt cannot in any sense be said to deprive them of their property without due process of law.

The question still remains, whether the particular provision of this statute now under consideration comes within this rule. It establishes a sinking-fund for the payment of debts when they mature, but does not pay the debts. The original contracts of loan are not changed. They remain as they were before, and are only to be met at maturity. All that has been done is to make it the duty of the company to lay by a portion of its current net income to meet its debts when they do fall due. In this way the current stockholders are prevented to some extent from depleting the treasury for their own benefit, at the expense of those who are to come after them. This is no more for the benefit of the creditors than it is for the corporation itself. It tends to give permanency to the value of the stock and bonds, and is in the direct interest of a faithful administration of affairs. It simply compels the managers for the time being to do what they ought to do voluntarily. The fund to be created is not so much for the security of the creditors as the ultimate protection of the public and the corporators.

To our minds it is a matter of no consequence that the Secretary of the Treasury is made the sinking-fund agent and the treasury of the United States the depository, or that the investment is to be made in the public funds of the United States. This does not make the deposit a payment of the debt due the United States. The duty of the manager of every sinking-fund is to seek some safe investment for the moneys as they accumulate in his hands, so that when required they may be promptly available. Certainly no objection can be made to the security of this investment. In fact, we do not understand that complaint is made in this particular. The objection is to the creation of the fund and not to the investment, if that investment is not in law a payment.

Neither is it a fatal objection that the half of the earnings for services rendered the government, which by the act of 1864 was to be paid to the companies, is put into this fund. The government is not released from the payment. While the money is retained, it is only that it may be put into the fund, which, although kept in the treasury, is owned by the company. When the debts are paid, the securities into which the moneys have been converted that remain undisposed of must be handed over to the corporation. Under the circumstances, the retaining of the money in the treasury as part of the sinking-fund is in law a payment to the company.

Not to pursue this branch of the inquiry any further, it is sufficient now to say that we think the legislation complained of may be sustained on the ground that it is a reasonable regulation of the administration of the affairs of the corporation, and promotive of the interests of the public and the corporators. It takes nothing from the corporation or the stockholders which actually belongs to them. It oppresses no one, and inflicts no wrong. It simply gives further assurance of the continued solvency and prosperity of a corporation in which the public are so largely interested, and adds another guaranty to the permanent and lasting value of its vast amount of securities.

The legislation is also warranted under the authority by way of amendment to change or modify the rights, privileges, and immunities granted by the charter. The right of the stockholders to a division of the earnings of the corporation is a privilege derived from the charter. When the charter and its amendments first became laws, and the work on the road was undertaken, it was by no means sure that the enterprise would prove a financial success. No statutory restraint was then put upon the power of declaring dividends. It was not certain that the stock would ever find a place on the list of marketable securities, or that there would be any bonds subsequent in lien to that of the United States which could need legislative or other protection. Hence, all this was left unprovided for in the charter and its amendments as originally granted, and the reservation of the power of amendment inserted so as to enable the government to accommodate its legislation to the requirements of the public and the corporation as they should be developed in the future. Now it is known that the stock of the company has found its way to the markets of the world; that large issues of bonds have been made beyond what was originally contemplated, and that the company has gone on for years dividing its earnings without any regard to its increasing debt, or to the protection of those whose rights may be endangered if this practice is permitted to continue. For this reason Congress has interfered, and, under its reserved power, limited the privilege of declaring dividends on current earnings, so as to confine the stockholders to what is left after suitable provision has been made for the protection of creditors and stockholders against the disastrous consequences of a constantly increasing debt. As this increase cannot be kept down by payment unless voluntarily made by the corporation, the next best thing has been done, that is to say, a fund safely invested, which increases as the debt increases, has been established and set apart to meet the debt when the time comes that payment can be required.

The only material difference between the Central Pacific Company and the Union Pacific lies in the fact that in the case of the Central Pacific the special franchises, as well as the land and subsidy bonds, were granted by the United States to a corporation formed and organized under the laws of California, while in that of the Union Pacific Congress created the corporation to which the grants were made. The California corporation was organized under a State law with an authorized capital of $8,500,000, to build a road from the city of Sacramento to the eastern boundary of the State, a distance of about one hundred and fifteen miles. Under the operation of its California charter, it could only borrow money to an amount not exceeding the capital stock, and must provide a sinking-fund for the ultimate redemption of the bonds. Hittell's Cal. Laws, 1850-64, sect. 840. No power was granted to build any road outside the State, or in the State except between the termini named. By the act of 1862, Congress granted this corporation the right to build a road from San Francisco, or the navigable waters of the Sacramento River, to the eastern boundary of the State, and from there through the Territories of the United States until it met the road of the Union Pacific Company. For this purpose all the rights, privileges, and franchises were given this company that were granted the Union Pacific Company, except the franchise of being a corporation, and such others as were merely incident to the organization of the company. The land-grants and subsidy bonds to this company were the same in character and quantity as those to the Union Pacific, and the same right of amendment was reserved. Each of the companies was required to file in the Department of the Interior its acceptance of the conditions imposed, before it could become entitled to the benefits conferred by the act. This was promptly done by the Central Pacific Company, and in this way that corporation voluntarily submitted itself to such legislative control by Congress as was reserved under the power of amendment.

No objection has ever been made by the State to this action by Congress. On the contrary, the State, by implication at least, has given its assent to what was done, for in 1864 it passed 'An Act to aid in carrying out the provisions of the Pacific railroad and telegraph act of Congress,' and thereby confirmed and vested in the company 'all the rights, privileges, franchises, power, and authority conferred upon, granted to, or ve ted in said company by said act of Congress,' and repealed 'all laws or parts of laws inconsistent or in conflict with . . . the rights and privileges herein (therein) granted.' Hittell's Laws, sect. 4798; Acts of 1863-64, 471. Inasmuch as by the Constitution of California then in force (art. 4, sect. 31) corporations, except for municipal purposes, could not be created by special act, but must be formed under general laws, the legal effect of this act is probably little more than a legislative recognition by the State of what had been done by the United States with one of the State corporations.

In so doing, the State but carried out its original policy in reference to the same subject-matter, for as early as May 1, 1852, an act was passed reciting 'that the interests of this State, as well as those of the whole Union, require the immediate action of the government of the United States, for the construction of national thoroughfare connecting the navigable waters of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, for the purposes of national safety, in the event of war, and to promote the highest commercial interests of the Republic,' and granting the right of way through the State to the United States for the purpose of constructing such a road. Hittell's Laws, sect. 4791; Acts of 1852, 150. In 1859 (Acts of 1859, 391), a resolution was passed calling a convention 'to consider the refusal of Congress to take efficient measures for the construction of a railroad from the Atlantic States to the Pacific, and to adopt measures whereby the building of said railroad can be accomplished;' and at the same session of the legislature a memorial was prepared asking Congress to pass a law authorizing the construction of such a road, and asking also a grant of lands to aid in the construction of railroads in the State. Acts of 1859, 395. Nothing was done, however, by Congress until the Rebellion, which at once called the attention of all who were interested in the preservation of the Union to the immense practical importance of such a road for military purposes, and then, as soon as a plan could be matured and the necessary forms of legislation gone through with, the act of July 1, 1862, was passed. But this was not enough to interest capitalists in the undertaking, and although the legislature of California during the year 1863 passed several acts intended to hold out further inducements, but little was accomplished until the amendatory act of Congress in 1864, which, besides authorizing the first mortgage, and changing in some important particulars the conditions on which the subsidy bonds were to be issued, conferred additional powers on the corporation, some of which, such as the right of eminent domain in the Territories, the State could not grant, and others, such as the right of issuing first-mortgage bonds without a sinking-fund, and in excess of the capital stock, it had seen fit to withhold. This act also reserved to Congress full power of amendment, and was promptly accepted by the corporation. With this addition of corporate powers and pecuniary resources the work was pushed forward to completion with unexampled energy. But for the corporate powers and financial aid granted by Congress it is not probable that the road would have been built. The first-mortgage bonded debt was created without a sinking-fund, and the road in the Territories built under the authority of Congress, assented to and ratified by the State.

The Western Pacific Company, now, by consolidation, a part of the Central Pacific Company, was also organized, Dec. 13, 1862 (Acts of 1863, 81), under the general railroad law of California, with power to construct a road from a point on the San Francisco and San Jose Railroad, at or near San Jose, to Sacramento, and there connect with the road of the Central Pacific Company. Afterwards the Central Pacific Company assigned to this corporation its rights, under the act of Congress, to construct the road between San Jose and Sacramento; and this assignment was ratified by Congress, 'wit all the privileges and benefits of the several acts of Congress relating thereto, and subject to all the conditions thereof.' 13 Stat. 504. By the same act further privileges were granted by the United States both to the Central Pacific and Western Pacific Companies, in respect to their issue of first-mortgage bonds.

Under this legislation, we are of the opinion that, to the extent of the powers, rights, privileges, and immunities granted these corporations by the United States, Congress retains the right of amendment, and that in this way it may regulate the administration of the affairs of the company in reference to the debts created under its own authority, in a manner not inconsistent with the requirements of the original State charter, as modified by the State Aid Act of 1864, accepting what had been done by Congress. This is as far as it is necessary to go now. It will be time enough to consider what more may be done when the necessity arises. As yet, the State has not attempted to interfere with the action of Congress. All complaint thus far has come from the corporation itself, which, to secure the government aid, accepted all the conditions that were attached to the grants, including the reservation of power to amend.

It is clear that the establishment of a sinking-fund by the act of 1878 is not at all in conflict with any thing contained in the original State charter, for by that charter no such debt could be created without provision for such a fund. This part of the act of 1878 is, therefore, in the exact line of the policy of the State, and does no more than place the company again, to some extent, under obligations from which it had been released by congressional legislation. So, too, the reservation of the power of amendment by Congress is equally consistent with the settled policy of the State; for not only the State charter, in terms, makes such a reservation in favor of the State, but the Constitution expressly provides that all laws for the creation of corporations 'may be altered from time to time, or repealed.' Art. 4, sect. 31.

It is not necessary now to inquire whether, in ascertaining the net earnings of the company for the purpose of fixing the amount of the annual contributions to the sinking-fund, the earnings of all the roads owned by the present corporation are to be taken into the account, or only of those in aid of which the land-grants were made and the subsidy bonds issued. The question here is only as to the power of Congress to establish the fund at all. If disputes should ever arise as to the manner of stating the accounts, they can be settled at some future time.

Judgment affirmed.

Decree affirmed.



This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).